Monday, October 13, 2008

Reel Thoughts: Third Story's a Charm

Sometimes, you just have to get your act together and take it on the road, even if you’re the inimitable New York sensation Charles Busch. His wildly hilarious yet touching new show, The Third Story, can’t be seen Off-Broadway … yet.

Commissioned by the fabulous La Jolla Playhouse (which was co-founded by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer), The Third Story promised to be an ambitious departure for Busch. He juggled three distinct stories in three different genres but still managed to tie them all together under the dual themes of mothers and their children, and a writer’s need to incorporate their life into their work.

I’m happy to say that while The Third Story isn’t yet as tight and polished as Busch’s most popular plays like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party or The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, it is an amazing addition to his canon. It is also a more deeply complex and personal piece. It is hard not to get a bit choked up when aging screenwriter Peg (Mary Beth Peil) finally opens up her heart to her son Drew (Jonathan Walker), even though you’ve just been laughing hysterically at Scott Parkinson as a clone named Zygote who passes gas through his ears.

Set in 1949 in Omaha, Nebraska, and other locations including a Russian fairy tale forest, The Third Story begins with Peg (a screenwriter who has found herself as welcome in Hollywood as a ham sandwich at a Bar Mitzvah) following her son to the Midwest to implore him to write a screenplay with her. It’s Red Menace time, remember, and Peg’s worried that some youthful indiscretions may get her blacklisted. Drew, who became successful in Hollywood after his mother’s heyday, has sworn off show business, and he has some unresolved issues with Peg as well.

The second story is the screenplay Peg wants to write, a B-movie noir about a mob queen named Queenie Bartlett (Busch), who bankrolls frosty lady scientist Dr. Constance Hudson (Jennifer Van Dyck) and her cloning experiments for her own secret reasons. Queenie’s worried about her son Steve (Walker), who has married a woman she hates (Rebecca Levy). Dr. Hudson’s failed first try at cloning produced Zygote, a sputtering mess of a humanoid who wears a toupee on his head to cover his anus. Hudson hides him away in embarrassment, knowing that he’ll expire sometime soon anyway. All of these characters collide in ways you’ll delight in seeing, but would never have imagined.

Finally, Busch plays his own variation on the witch from Into the Woods in a Russian Fairy tale Peg used to tell her son. Fearsome crone Baba Yaga finds the painfully shy Princess Vasilisa (Levy) in her woods, where the girl has run to escape her love for the Prince. She wants his love more than anything, but she is such a mouse, she knows he’ll never love her back. Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa a potion that splits her into two people, the new creation as vivacious and irresistible as the princess is timid and dull. The doppelganger is sent to snare the Prince, while Princess Vasilisa must stay with the lonely old witch and keep her company.

All of the stories come together in parallel ways, and Busch the performer is as captivating as ever playing Queenie and her clone. The rest of the cast is outstanding, immersing themselves in Busch’s singular Old Time Hollywood style to uproarious, but sometimes poignant and moving ways. Levy stands out in her roles, since she is the only UC San Diego student in the professional cast of Broadway veterans. Parkinson has priceless moments of physical comedy, while Peil makes Peg a flawed woman you root for, even when you abhor what she’s done.

The production design, costumes, sound and music are all top-notch, making it a production that could and should move straight to Off-Broadway. Busch enjoyed the opportunity to experiment out of the harsh scrutiny and glare of the New York press, but his performances and the production prove that much of the best work in theater today isn’t happening on the isle of Manhattan.

You only have one more week to enjoy The Third Story before its first chapter closes. The final performance is Sunday October 19, so catch it while you can!

UPDATE: Just as Neil predicted, The Third Story is heading to Off-Broadway: it will make its Manhattan premiere as part of the MCC Theater season at Lucille Lortel Theatre beginning January 14. None other than Kathleen Turner will co-star.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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